The American Way of Life

Why do we do this to ourselves?

It’s good to have an outsider take a look at us and give some insight. Here’s an excellent example: a Slovakian wondering what’s up with American suburbs.

I’ve asked those same questions myself. When I lived in Pennsylvania, we first got an apartment in a shiny glossy hellhole, in a town called King of Prussia. It was the most dead, soulless place I’ve ever been to. The apartments were clean and good, but imbedded in loops of freeways, and the sole attraction was a mega-mall. We got out of there as soon as we could.

The next stop was a house in a suburban development near Jenkintown. It met one of the criteria mentioned by the Slovakian: there was bus service. I made that a requirement by taking mass transit to get to any place we were seriously considering. But the rest of that list fit it perfectly. The only things in that development were residential housing. If you wanted to go anywhere, you had to have a car. On weekends, there were no coffeeshops to walk to, no movie theaters, nothing. You stayed home and mowed your lawn. I kind of hated it.

We had moved to Pennsylvania from Salt Lake City, and that was an unpleasant change. Salt Lake City is a weird place, but I’ll give it this: there were lots of parks in walking distance from anywhere you might live. There was a bagel place a block away from my apartment, and three movie theaters within a few blocks, one of them a funky art house kind of place. We were surrounded by restaurants, too, although with three little kids we didn’t get to partake very often.

There are enriching places for humans to live, and then there are festering, ingrown suburbs that were built by short-sighted developers and that are entirely dependent on cars for survival. For some reason, probably capitalist greed, many Americans are compelled to live in the latter, for lack of alternatives.

Oh, also, racism.

A few years ago, the city of Minneapolis took a bold step and changed zoning laws. Such a simple thing, with deep consequences!

Minneapolis will become the first major U.S. city to end single-family home zoning, a policy that has done as much as any to entrench segregation, high housing costs, and sprawl as the American urban paradigm over the past century.

On Friday, the City Council passed Minneapolis 2040, a comprehensive plan to permit three-family homes in the city’s residential neighborhoods, abolish parking minimums for all new construction, and allow high-density buildings along transit corridors.

“Large swaths of our city are exclusively zoned for single-family homes, so unless you have the ability to build a very large home on a very large lot, you can’t live in the neighborhood,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told me this week. Single-family home zoning was devised as a legal way to keep black Americans and other minorities from moving into certain neighborhoods, and it still functions as an effective barrier today. Abolishing restrictive zoning, the mayor said, was part of a general consensus that the city ought to begin to mend the damage wrought in pursuit of segregation. Human diversity—which nearly everyone in this staunchly liberal city would say is a good thing—only goes as far as the housing stock.

It’s probably too soon to tell for sure, and there’s more to this problem than just zoning, but there are hints that we might be getting some incremental, evolutionary change. Here’s an article by a landlord <makes the sign of the cross, mutters a prayer of protection> that suggests there has been a subtle shift. First, she points out the racial disparities — maybe that ought to be one of the first answers to give that Slovakian. Race hatred poisons everything in this country.

I’ve worked on housing affordability since 1997. That whole time, the Twin Cities has been losing ground, with homes becoming steadily less affordable. Rents have been rising — sometimes very rapidly. The portion of people paying more than 30 percent or even 50 percent of their income in rent (the definition of “housing cost burden”) is stubbornly high, especially for Black households. While we increase public funding for Affordable Housing — the subsidized kind — the number of unsheltered people grows.

But then she looks at rents. It’s messy, and complicated by the fact that we’re in a pandemic, but things are looking slightly better.

This spring, I pulled all the median advertised rent information from the Minneapolis Rental Housing Brief into a spreadsheet. I didn’t adjust it for inflation. I used three-month rolling averages to smooth out the monthly noise. Check out these results.

Line graph showing 1, 2, and 3br rent trends in Minneapolis 2018 through 2022

Data: HousingLink Minneapolis Rental Housing Brief, chart by author
The actual advertised median rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments are lower — in actual dollars — in 2022 than they were in late 2018. Three-bedroom rents went up 2 percent over the four years, while inflation went up 11 percent over the same time. These shifts started more than a year before the pandemic. “Post” pandemic increases look big due to the atypical and extremely low rents during summer 2020. But trends show that Minneapolis rents have simply returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Rents are a rather narrow parameter to scrutinize livability in a city, but it’s something, at least.

As for my situation now: I’m in a small town that would find it difficult to lock down a large chunk of land and reserve it for single family housing, although they’d like to try, I’m sure. There are some nascent suburb-like areas near town where the local construction company has put up rows and rows of houses. We looked at those when we were on the market, and crossed them all off our list when we noticed their common feature: they all had gigantic garages, another affliction of American housing. We don’t own three gargantuan trucks, which would have easily fit into those garages, so we didn’t see the point. Now we live in a quirky older home with all the commercial amenities within a half-mile walk, and a university next door, which is a much nicer way to live. We’ve gone for weeks without driving a car!

I guess the bottom line explanation I’d give the Slovakian would be two words: cars and racism.


  1. Captain Kendrick says

    Oh, you hated King of Prussia then?
    They totally responded to your wishes and desires, and built a WALKABLE town center!
    That’s right — they built another one of those soul-less corporate “Town Centers” that look like all of the other “Town Centers” in any-US-vanilla-metro-suburban zoning district!
    There are blocky apartments and you can walk outside of them and walk through the “Town Center” with your small dog! They even have doggie poop-bag dispensers AND a Brazillian Steakhouse!

  2. says

    Well, that would be an improvement over what we had over 20 years ago, when it was just blocky apartments, freeways, and a gigantic cathedral of capitalism.

    We don’t have a dog and we’re vegetarian.

  3. mordred says

    Decades ago I met an US soldier stationed in my corner of Germany. Recently arrived he talked about this amazing thing we had here: City centres that were all sidewalk!
    Took me a while to get what he meant, pedestrian zones being quite normal and boring to me.

  4. Artor says

    Those oversized garages are great for setting up a home shop or laboratory in. Just think of all the spiders you could host, PZ!

  5. says

    Today I was years old when I learned that the average Dutch person gets 16+ hours of exercise per week.
    And most of us don’t even exercise, we just live.
    Commuting, going to the grocery store, visiting friends/family, etc. is often done by walking or cycling.
    We do that because it’s easy, and it is easy because of non-braindead urban planning and proper infrastructure.


  6. acroyear says

    I worked in KoP Mall at a chain shoe store (my ‘home’ mall was Willow Grove but I was flexible so the company would offer me fill-in gigs at KoP or Montgomery) 32 years ago. Yeah at the time it was still just the mall, the highways, the houses…and the noise and the traffic.

    Mixed Use development is being called in to revitalize mall areas (two parts of Sterling VA, north of DC’s Dulles airport) are getting re-zoned to mixed-used. But that too can have negative side effects. If a anchor-store company with a lot of spare cash (thank you tax laws from a certain political party) decides that they want to make inroads into an area before another, they can over-pay the rent on the mixed-use spot. In doing, they raise property values, which raise rents and taxes for the local small businesses around it. This happened in Falls Church, where Harris Teeter moved in, and a lot of local restaurants and shops had to close up or move out (most just closed). All because HT wanted to keep out Wegmans (from the north) and co-competitor from the south, Publix…as well as outpricing the mid-atlantic stores (Giant and Safeway) that have been struggling to match the features of these incoming chains.

    so the tax and housing benefits from mixed-use may get cursed again as the property values go up so high (because somebody is willing to pay it) that low/middle income may still get budgeted right out of what should be to their benefit.

  7. Derek Vandivere says

    #5 / Halcyon:

    I think a lot of it also comes down to the fact that so much of the US cityscape was laid out after the introduction of the car.

  8. rorschach says

    I think the US and Australia are suffering from similar problems with suburban development. You expand the little bit of a town center that developed organically 200 years ago with off-the-shelf low quality townhouses that punters can just about afford to pay off before they stop working, plan everything in grids and calculate the allocateable piece of lawn per property. Then it occurs to you that schools, restaurants, bike lanes, shops, sports areals etc. would have been nice too, and instead you have gaming venues, fast food outlets and bottle shops.

  9. R. L. Foster says

    To the distress of some of my more OCD neighbors I’ve begun to convert part of my front lawn, such as it is, into a wildflower space for the pollinators. I started doing this three years ago. The wildflowers have begun to expand their territory outward and in time may take up most of the lawn. There are no restrictions concerning this in our very lenient HOA’s rules. I’m doing the same thing in the back yard, with the addition of a couple of cannabis plants. We’re now allowed to grow four in Virginia so long as they can’t be seen from the street or by children. All of our neighbors’ kids are grown and on their own, so no issues there. This is the first year I’ve done this. I’m curious to see how the plants will do in Virginia’s very changeable climate. Things can swing from Midwest cold to Florida torrid almost overnight. One day we have the furnace running, the next we’re considering turning on the a/c. This Spring has been especially weird. While the West is dry and baking, we’re sodden and chilly.

  10. anat says

    Recommended reading: Happy City by Charles Montgomery. All about how US suburbs are bad for health and personal development, about cities that did or are doing things better, about urban design ideas that can repair existing suburbs, how to go about it right and how to do it wrong despite ‘right’ advertising.

    I live in an inner suburb. Decent public transportation to the city means that we typically only drive once a week for errands and once in a longer while for trips out of town. I have 2 or 3 grocery stores within what I consider walking distance (2 within a mile from home, the 3rd is 2.5 miles away) 4-5 pharmacies, quite a few places to eat out for those who are interested in that (not a priority for us), lots of green spaces. Most of the place is single-family zoned but there has been much construction of apartments along major roads. And now the city is considering doing away with single family zoning altogether. (This used to be a very white place, many neighborhoods forbade non-white residents back when that was legal, but has been diversifying over the last 2 decades to the point that at least half of the elementary schools are ‘majority-minority’.)

  11. asclepias says

    Can’t argue with both racism and cars. Where I lived in grad school (Akron, OH) was pretty soulless, too (though it was just 6 blocks away from the bus stop–not that the public transportation there was particularly convenient, but at least it existed). Where I lived was very black and very poor. The outlying parts of the city (I’ve never understood how cities are separated into different cities out there–it’s one continuous block from Akron to Cleveland) were whiter and wealthier. I’d add classism to the list of isms. I took a long bike ride yesterday on one of my favorite tracks and discovered that there are a TON of houses being built out in the “country.” Houses like I (and probably most of us) live in are “starter houses.” I will never understand why a “smaller” house is just not good enough. Plus, where the hell are all these people coming from? News flash: Cheyenne, Wyoming is on the High Plains. The water situation here is going to get a lot worse. (I’ll lay odds that most of the people buying these houses don’t even live here–they’re just wealthy Californians who buy these houses in order to say they own property in Wyoming. Wyoming allows will decanting, but you’ve got to have some sort of tie to the state in order to do it.)

  12. PaulBC says

    I grew up in the Northwest exurbs of Philadelphia (about 25 minutes by car to King of Prussia). It was indeed annoying to have to be driven everywhere. The saving grace was the presence of small farms adjacent to developments with owners who didn’t mind kids walking through. There were copses of trees where you could walk or make “forts.” When I was a older, I started biking and could get to other places, such as used bookstores. It wasn’t too bad, but most of the farms are gone now and replaced by McMansions or office parks, so it has lost much of its character. I wouldn’t move back.

    If it looked like that picture, it would truly be a wasteland. I am not a fan of cul de sacs at all. I agree that racism was an early driver of suburban development. More generally, the goal seems to be to isolate yourself from having to be part of any community. I’m an introvert, and I still think that’s an insane thing to do.

  13. Susan Montgomery says

    @14. Yeah, given the smashing success of high-density housing projects it’s puzzling that anyone would choose anything else.

  14. says

    I hate the suburbs. It’s terrible, and right now I can’t afford to move. Although I’m somewhat lucky in a couple respects. For one thing, I’m near the edge of the suburbs so I can fairly easily walk to a place with groceries and coffee and pizza. No bars or restaurants, though. There was one many moons ago (and Dolly Parton ate there once, apparently), but it’s no longer with us.

    For another, our town has fairly decent public transportation. It still leaves something to be desired, though. My job is ideally a fifteen minute drive from my house. I usually leave the house about half an hour before my shift, which allows plenty of time for slow traffic, unforeseen obstacles, maybe a visit to a drive-thru, etc. But that’s if I take a cab or a relative drives me, because I don’t have my own car. If I take the bus, I have to leave the house a good two hours before my shift. That, of course, means I have to get up really early, and I am definitely not a morning person.

    As for yards, we do use ours a little instead of just having a gigantic patch of green. There’s a little flower patch in the front yard, and the back yard has a picnic table and a swing set for the younger members of the family.

    My city and my state are trying a number of things to ease traffic problems, reduce housing costs, and just generally make the place more livable. We have some good, open-minded folks in this town who vote for decent city council members, but I worry about things at the state level. A lot of people are blaming all the pandemic woes on the current governor. I’m concerned we’ll get saddled with another Paul LePage.

  15. Walter Solomon says

    The same questions could’ve been asked by anyone who grew up in the city. I just watched a documentary about Chicago the other day. It showed that the massive Chicago hoising projects like Cabrini-Green were constructed for no other reason than to house Black Chicogoans into one “convenient” area.

    The short of it — housing in the US cannot be understood but through the prism of race. Most of it has its origins in racial segregation and redlining. That is fundamental aspect that must be understood when trying to comprehend American living patterns that still continue.

  16. says

    …housing in the US cannot be understood but through the prism of race.

    But if you say anything along those lines in public, you’ll be sued out of existence for teaching “critical race theory.” Can’t be upsetting the (overgrown) children, can we?

  17. PaulBC says

    keithb@18 Columbia, Maryland was also planned idealistically. Wikipedia:

    Creator and developer James W. Rouse saw the new community in terms of human values, rather than merely economics and engineering. Opened in 1967, Columbia was intended to not only eliminate the inconveniences of then-current subdivision design, but also eliminate racial, religious and class segregation.

    Rouse was a welcome counterpoint to William Levitt at least as regards segregation. (My parents lived in a Levittown before I was born and I think this was one of the things that drove them out.)

    The last time I was there (over 25 years back), Columbia seemed pretty nice. I am not sure how it is doing today or how it has kept to Rouse’s vision.

  18. gnokgnoh says

    I live in Jenkintown, a town started in the 1700’s and incorporated in 1874, long before the surrounding suburbs arrived. We are less than one mile from the edge of Philadelphia. PZ must have lived in Abington or a nearby suburb. I moved to Jenkintown because it is quite walkable, has a main street, town square, three train lines at a station five minutes walk from my house and multiple bus routes in all directions. We also have over 25 restaurants, bodegas, and other retail shops with apartments above, along multiple commercial streets. We also have apartment buildings, row houses, twins (two houses stuck together), and single family homes and are a healthy, mixed-race and ethnicity community. It’s a really nice place to live. We have zoning ordinances that allow you to grow wildflowers and gardens on your property and to raise chickens, rabbits, goats, and even horses with a minimum area requirement per animal. A number of neighbors are beekeepers. I know, because their hives all divided recently, and two of them decided to start colonies in my tree. We have 1/8 acre with enough room to grow lots of vegetables, although the garden over by the historic library (late 1700s) is where I have a much larger kitchen garden. It has sun.

    It is not King of Prussia, which is essentially a giant mall. I feel bad that PZ never lived in Jenkintown. He might not have left.

  19. springa73 says

    I know it’s cool in some circles to hate suburbs, but honestly, I’ve lived in typical suburbs almost my whole life and liked it just fine. It works well for people like me who want a separate house and yard of their own, don’t like walking everywhere and don’t like crowds of strangers, and don’t care about being close to commercial centers. I know that there are plenty of bad things that legitimately can be said about suburbs in terms of racism and lack of environmental sustainability, but as far as whether they are a pleasant living environment or not, I’ve found them ideal.

  20. Arkady says

    I live in suburban London with my Canadian partner, and I get the impression from his descriptions that Canadian suburbs are similar to the US ones described here, with no sidewalks and no amenities within walkable distance. London had the advantage that when it expanded, it swallowed up existing towns and villages giving the new neighbourhoods a built-in area for shops and pubs etc centred on the old bits. My partner’s mum can’t get over how many amenities like parks, shops and libraries etc we have within a 5-10 min walk. Also, a lot of the London suburban expansion still predated near-universal car ownership (our neighbourhood was built in the late 1920s by the local council, during the architectural period I think of as the “crap, the revolution in Russia happened, better get some decent housing within reach of the better-off working classes” period). Much of the more recent building in the UK has been criticised as far too car focused, along with other issues like regulatory capture tanking building standards (lethally including with flammable materials).

  21. PaulBC says

    I also wonder if this Slovakian observer understands the degree to which crappy or non-existent public transportation is intentional. I remember after I had lived in Baltimore for a couple of years, taking buses occasionally, and wondering about oddities such as a short stretch of metro (and later an unrelated light rail system). I was stunned to see old pictures of Baltimore with an extensive trolley system that had been removed in most cases leaving not a single trace. Anyone who saw Roger Rabbit would know the basic outline but these systems were intentionally bought out and demolished by General Motors and other companies related to the auto industry. So you might say “America’s love affair with the automobile” was more of an arranged marriage.

    There is also a lot of racism involved. Controversies over public transportation are almost never about costs, efficiency, or best placement. Invariably, they’re blocked by communities that don’t want “those people” connected by transit. While I only have memories and anecdotes to go on, it seemed very clear to me that many white suburbs around Baltimore were scared of being connected to the city (claiming, among other things, that “people from Baltimore” were using the light rail to steal bicycles). This was in the early 90s and I don’t know the current situation.

    The public transit systems that succeed (in my observation) have very specific uses, such as commuting in from bedroom communities and back for work, or connecting to stadiums. There are others that seem so poorly thought out that I don’t know why they exist. Santa Clara County VTA has a light rail system that meanders through Silicon Valley at a snail’s pace with many stops. It’s been years since I boarded one so maybe it has changed, but I never remember it being crowded either.

    There are few places where you can just rely on transit for short, spontaneous trips. The New York subway is one of the few exceptions that comes to mind.

    On the point about Jenkintown @21, Philadelphia does have good regional rail, at least by US standards. That’s mainly because they avoided having it all destroyed like so many other cities.

    I thought some of this was supposed to change with millennials and younger, who are actually doing less driving than older generations. (Or I thought I read this, but it was a while ago and many it’s just that they’re young and poor.)

  22. PaulBC says

    springa73@22 I enjoy living in dense, walkable suburbs like I do now, with light traffic, parks, and at least some businesses within a half mile. I like it better than living in a city, which I’ve done. I also think it’s a better environment for kids (though I’m sure you could make a case for raising your kid in Manhattan if you could afford it.)

    I would not go back to any suburb like the one I grew up in. And I have seen much worse. Partly, I’d say it’s a matter of personal taste. I have to assume some people really like living in an isolated cul de sac miles from any park or business. Well, there’s plenty of choices for them. Partly, it’s just that “suburbs” is a very broad category. I like my suburbs just fine. One thing I appreciate about the cul de sacs around me is that they often have bike/pedestrian paths that connect through. You kind of have to look for them though. What I hate when biking is to be stuck in a labyrinth and eventually just having to retrace my steps out.

  23. says

    The trend to “granny flats” to accommodate an elderly parent is well established in Australia. My home over there has an upstairs- downstairs with elderly parents downstairs and my son and his wife upstairs. A 2 bedroom granny flat to the side accommodates other relatives and an 18x12foot bedsit is for other visitors/friends or me when I visit. The front yard is all car park. There is a large back deck for barbecues and still enough left over for a garden where yes we do grow food. The bus stop is 60 yards up the road and a major bus transitway 10 minutes walk away.

    OK it an old but very solid brick house on a classic 1/4 acre block left over from the original urban fringe farm. The rest of the houses are all newly developed McMansions on pocket handkerchief blocks and no proper car parking. Thats the problem when slimy developers buy local councils and state governments.

  24. mcfrank0 says

    I had no idea that King of Prussia was anything more than a shopping center.

    As a kid I enjoyed window shopping and the occasional live entertainment. Our family would also make Valley Forge a stop off point either before or after shopping.

  25. unclefrogy says

    all that has been said is true there is only one thing I would add.It is an old song it offers no solution I do not have one either but the sentiment well that is something else.

  26. ealloc says

    Just to add some counterpoints in favor of Philly, I live near downtown in a rowhouse near the art museum, and there are lots of restaurants, shops, parks & life around. I bike to work everyday (at Temple, which I think PZ worked at). Like a lot of cities, Philly has added a lot of bike lanes, and it’s small enough that nearly anywhere interesting is within 20 mins biking. My wife has a car but we rarely use it. There are lots of buses & subway system. Incidentally, there seems to be a housing construction boom in philly, lots of new apt buildings not too far from downtown.

    If I wanted to avoid downtown but still keep a neighborhood feel, I’d probably live in Chestnut Hill/Mount Airy, which is a beautiful tree lined area favored by many professors and graduate students. I know some Bio professors meet up in a cafe there mornings, a short walk from where they live. Some people commute downtown by public transport. Jenkintown itself also seems pretty nice and affordable to me and I know a postdoc who commuted from there daily by SETPA rail, but yeah there are large amounts of suburb around it.

    King of Prussia doesn’t appeal to me at all, sorry you ended up there!

  27. PaulBC says

    unclefrogy@28 Eh, don’t get me started on “Little Boxes.” Reynolds was signing about the houses on the hills of Daly City, south of San Francisco. They’re still there today and are worth a fortune like the rest of the real estate in the Bay Area. But that’s not my point.

    Reynolds was born in San Francisco in 1900. Her family didn’t need “little boxes” because they already lived in the city. Those houses were for people with the simple aspiration of finding a nice place to raise a family. What exactly is she attacking here? Is it their bad taste? Their relative lack of means? Were they supposed to hire Frank Lloyd Wright to build them an architectural masterpiece? These were human beings seeking shelter and a place to call home as we all do.

    Personally, I feel affection for those humble, identical structures, built simply of relatively inexpensive “ticky tack” material. What matters is what lay within: human beings. Malvina Reynolds and her elitism can go shove it as far as I’m considered.

    I’m not saying that she intended it to be elitist, nor did others who covered it so well such as Pete Seeger, a great humanist. But to me, it portrays precisely the ugliness that leftwing people (I include myself) fail to see in ourselves and why a lot of potential allies hate us for it.

    There is simply nothing wrong with wanting a little house on a hill in Daly City, painting it a cheerful colorful, raising a family there, and enjoying the pleasure of coming home from work to live in it. In fact, it’s a very human aspiration that should be celebrated and not derided in a folk song.

  28. says

    …I’m sure you could make a case for raising your kid in Manhattan if you could afford it.

    Sure, at least you’d be near Central Park, so there’d be plenty of play-space in a variety of natural settings (by day at least). Also a good choice of decent schools, public and private.

    …The rest of the houses are all newly developed McMansions on pocket handkerchief blocks and no proper car parking.

    That might be kinda sorta acceptable, if the zoning laws allowed extended families to fully use all those rooms, as garydargans’s family seem to do with their much older house.

  29. kingoftown says

    I’d also like to know what kids do in these hellscapes. No buses into the town, no parks, no corner shops and no cafes or takeaways within walking distance, it seems like you would even need driven to visit a friend’s house. They must be so reliant on their parents to do anything. I think I’m understanding better why Americans learn to drive so young.

  30. PaulBC says


    I’d also like to know what kids do in these hellscapes.

    They become bored and rebel against authority, causing all manner of trouble. It’s all here in this 1979 documentary starring a young Matt Dillon. Uh wait, documentaries don’t have stars, so scratch that part. It was, however, apparently loosely based on Foster City, a planned community on the bay side of the SF Peninsula.

    I missed “Over the Edge” when it came out. I am pretty sure I saw Siskel and Ebert review it. I saw it more recently, and it’s at least a little interesting as a cultural artifact. I think suburban kids were wilder in the 70s than today (based on my recollection of older siblings). In reality, kids might just be spending a lot of time playing video games inside.

    Not all suburbs are like this, and the ones around me at least have a lot of parks.

  31. PaulBC says

    I was checking my memory of Siskel and Ebert reviewing Over the Edge (which had limited theatrical release) and found this. Thanks, YouTube!

    This is on topic to the extent that people have been predicting dire consequences of suburban sprawl for a long time. It is interesting that in under 20 years, the criticism shifts from conformity (Malvina Reynolds) to teens run amok. And now another 40 years have past and we’re still building them.

  32. John Morales says


    What exactly is she attacking here? Is it their bad taste? Their relative lack of means? Were they supposed to hire Frank Lloyd Wright to build them an architectural masterpiece?

    “The song is a political satire about the development of suburbia, and associated conformist middle-class attitudes. It mocks suburban tract housing as “little boxes” of different colors “all made out of ticky-tacky”, and which “all look just the same”. “Ticky-tacky” is a reference to the shoddy material supposedly used in the construction of the houses.”

    (You’re welcome)

    Personally, I feel affection for those humble, identical structures, built simply of relatively inexpensive “ticky tack” material. What matters is what lay within: human beings.

    Like prisons, or crack-houses.

    (BTW, that should be “lies”, not “lay”)

    But to me, it portrays precisely the ugliness that leftwing people (I include myself) fail to see in ourselves and why a lot of potential allies hate us for it.

    Yeah, mate, but I reckon not all “leftwing people” are like you, seeing the ugliness in their own ilk. But, hey, at least you don’t hate the ugliness you don’t fail to see in yourself… or in folk songs.

    (“Judge not, that ye be not judged”)

  33. PaulBC says

    John Morales@36 Past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Reynolds wrote her song in the past. People are still in those houses, but people were there when she wrote it too.

    And yes, I know what she’s mocking. It’s still an elitist song. They’re houses, not particularly ostentatious ones, and meant a great deal to the people who worked hard to afford them. Who the hell was she to judge?

  34. tuatara says

    This suburban sprawl is not just an American phenomenon. Check out the typical suburban development currently sweeping Australia:

    Apart from those issues described in this thread, one of the problems these developments create is overheating, which Australian suburbs can certainly do without. This issue is explored here:

  35. John Morales says


    Past tense of “lie” is “lay.”


    Well, at least they’re getting laid.

    And yes, I know what she’s mocking.

    Did you at the time? I mean, “What exactly is she attacking here?” is a straightforward question, to which I generously provided an answer.

    [1] They’re houses, not particularly ostentatious ones, and meant a great deal to the people who worked hard to afford them. [2] Who the hell was she to judge?

    Hey, you are judging her (as I intimated). Go for it.
    You thought you had got it, then you write this.

    tuatara, oh yeah, we’re kinda USA lite.

    On the topic:
    The Ugly, Dangerous, and Inefficient Stroads found all over the US & Canada [ST05]

  36. F.O. says

    Was hoping to get an embed. Oh well. The title of the video is “Why American Cities Are Broke – The Growth Ponzi Scheme [ST03]”

  37. PaulBC says

    John Morales@39

    Did you at the time? I mean, “What exactly is she attacking here?” is a straightforward question, to which I generously provided an answer.

    Yes, I’m very familiar with the song. Pete Seeger did a great version, among others. I used to think about it while looking at the Daly City houses going back and forth to San Francisco. I had also just read over the same Wikipedia article you quote.

    Have you ever heard of a rhetorical question?

    I have nothing against attacking suburban sprawl as in the abstract as a process, but Malvina Reynolds was landing her punches on the people who purchased them, attacking their taste and going on to speculate about their conformity in other things.

    These are truly little houses by the standards of American sprawl, packed on tiny lots. Here’s a Zillow entry. The “ticky tacky” must not have been such an inferior material, considering the linked house has lasted 72 years. It’s ironic, though besides the point, that one of them (2bd 1ba 1080 sq ft) goes for $1.6 million today.

    Malvina Reynolds and those who later covered her song (including Victor Jara, which is something I really didn’t know until I read last night) have a legitimate criticism, but they express it not as an attack on policy, but as an attack on individual taste.

    How does it make you a bad person to content yourself with a small house, following the same architectural plan as your neighbor, made of economical materials, customize it somewhat with a paint color of your choice, and (despite Reynolds’s inference) possibly furnish it very individually and lead your own life inside of it, not determined by the shape of the house?

    It doesn’t. Or is “bourgeois” simply an indictment in itself?

  38. PaulBC says

    To put it much better than I can.

    The 1963 folk song written by Malvina Reynolds and sung by Pete Seegar titled “Little Boxes” mocks this particular Westlake development in an arrogant and superior way. This song has always made me angry. Affordable housing, done in this somewhat creative way is something to be proud of, not mocked. Terms such as “ticky tacky” in truth does not apply to the construction methods used. Today these houses are in fine shape and have been kept up by their proud owners and from the outside at least appear to be in pretty much their original condition.

  39. Susan Montgomery says

    @42. Because it’s knuckling under to cryptofascist bourgeois oppression from The Man.

    Seriously, we’ve reached the point in some circles where more than three people agreeing on something is considered dogmatic conformity.

    As well as a conspiracy because there’s no such thing as genuine disagreement anymore.

  40. vucodlak says

    @ PaulBC, #37

    They’re houses

    No, they’re shitboxes built by scumbag developers to turn a profit on the backs of the working poor. They exist solely to exploit people who’ve been sold the “American Dream” of owning your own house with a white picket fence. The people who built those wretched things are not one iota better than any slumlord who charges too-high rent for a crumbling, roach-infested tenement. I’d argue they’re worse, because those shitbox “neighborhoods” are worse for the environment.

    I live a house built by a developer (although thankfully I actually have a yard and my neighborhood wasn’t a planned development like the one in the photo, so the houses are all different), and I can tell you what it means to me: a moneypit. The developer used the cheapest possible materials, cut every corner they could possibly get away with, and didn’t give a damn about the people who actually have to live in any of their houses.

    I can guarantee that those humble structures and their ticky-tack materials that you’re so fond of are the same way. It’s not just developers who love these places, either- contractors love the constant income from people just trying to keep their shitbox livable. The whole thing is just another way to pump money out of poor people’s pockets into the bank accounts of the rich.

    Oh, and the whole starter house thing? It’s bullshit. How are you supposed to save enough money to move somewhere better when every penny you have is going to trying to keep the basement from flooding (because the developer built the house on a hillside with the outside stairs running up the slope that the rainwater runs down) or the structure from crumbling (because the developer used cheap fill to even out the lot and then poured a massive, attached concrete driveway on one side, causing the house to settle in two different directions).

    I’ll tell you what this person who lives in a developer house thinks: I think every last real estate developer should be hanging from a lamppost on a noose made of their own intestines, and I think your “affection” for these rat traps is condescending bullshit. This place is better than a refrigerator box in an alley, sure, but a box in an alley is exactly where I’m probably going to be living once this place finally falls apart and that’s precisely because I don’t have any savings after living in one of these ‘cute little houses’.

    That doesn’t even get into the fact that a hell of a lot of these developments are built on toxic waste dumps or worse. I shudder to think what all was in the fill that the skeevy fuckers who built this place used.

  41. brightmoon says

    I live in NYC in Queens! Because most housing is older there’s no parking but public transportation is a dream. 7 blocks from the subway and 2 blocks from one bus and 5 blocks from 2 others . Most of the city is like that not just Queens ! Housing lots are small but Queens has a lot of grass and trees . Especially since a former mayor initiated planting more street trees . I love the extra wildlife that brought! We’re getting mourning doves which Id never seen before .

  42. brightmoon says

    The black and Hispanic communities in Queens cluster around the airports ,LaGuardia and Kennedy , with there being a Superfund site right by Citifield stadium. Surprisingly we don’t get the airplane noise and never have but living close to an airport you are going to get environmental contamination

  43. PaulBC says

    vucodlak@45 We’re all entitled to our tastes.

    I don’t live in Daly City, but I live in ranch house south of the bay built in 1952. It was not intended to be anything special and was quite small. There are some unpermitted additions by past owners so it’s now big enough for a family of 4 but laid out a little strangely.

    As for materials, it has hardwood floors that have lasted all this time. Today’s McMansions are certainly made of much cheaper material and who knows about the quality of the work. This one seems fine to me provided the termites don’t get to it.

    The insane real estate value in the Bay Area is mostly in the land anyway, so some of these properties are purchased as “tear downs.” Many are kept as-is or renovated, probably because the owners need a place to live and it’s costly to find other lodgings while waiting for a house to be built. The houses in Daly City are stuck together so I don’t know if rebuilding is even an option. You might get a lot of dirty looks from the neighbors even if it’s allowed.

    You have to live somewhere. I have personal opinions about where I want to live, but I don’t question other peoples’. “Location location location” always seemed like the point to me.

  44. PaulBC says

    Mountain View has a whole section that was a superfund site contaminated by solvents from the early semiconductor industry in the 50s. And no, I don’t want to live there even if they tell me it has been cleaned up. I am sure the houses and condos go for over a million there anyway.

  45. brightmoon says

    Vucodlak I agree about the spit , cardboard, and chewing gum construction of modern houses . And then they’re too small to live in comfortably

  46. Walter Solomon says

    PaulBC @34

    It’s all here in this 1979 documentary

    I only heard of this film last night when searching for something to watch. It kinda reminded me of the 90s classic Dazed and Confused.

  47. kingoftown says

    Elitism against people living in detached houses in a suburb of San Francisco? Really?

  48. PaulBC says

    kingoftown@52 Daly City wasn’t such a prime location at the time. And they’re being mocked by a San Francisco native. Kind of like Manhattanites looking down at the “bridge and tunnel” residents of the other boroughs.

  49. PaulBC says

    Walter Solomon@51 Somewhere in my Googling I read that Linklater was inspired by Over the Edge when he made Dazed and Confused. The movies have a very different feel to me. I watched Dazed and Confused even more recently, and the story isn’t really about kids threatening the community, just being complete assholes to each other, often condoned by their parents as long as it’s approved (hazing freshman) and not rebellious (refusing to sign the anti-drug pledge).

    Another difference is that Over the Edge portrayed a rootless community that had simply moved into a new development whereas Dazed and Confused suggested a town with its traditions (most of them pretty terrible) and a coherent social structure (again one I could do without).

  50. PaulBC says

    Walter Solomon@55 Probably. Mencken suddenly made me think of the formstone row houses of Baltimore. I don’t know if Mencken had anything to say about them. (I’ll withhold judgment; I lived there 6 years, though in the basement of a row house with original brick).

    As for trips across the US, I enjoyed Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

    Some years ago at Abercrombie and Fitch I bought a cattle caller, an automobile horn manipulated by a lever with which nearly all cow emotions can be imitated, from the sweet lowing of a romantic heifer to the growling roar of a bull in the prime and lust of his bullhood.

    It was a very different A&F back in the day.

  51. John Morales says


    Have you ever heard of a rhetorical question?

    That’s a rhetorical question, right? ;)

  52. unclefrogy says

    @45 correct none of this “soulless sprawl” was for the benefit of community and the people living their nor with any concern for the environment they were and still are built primarily to sell for money and after the sale they are of no concern of the developer at all save any regulations imposed by the mostly wholly owned political establishment they are located in.

  53. Walter Solomon says


    Mencken suddenly made me think of the formstone row houses of Baltimore. I don’t know if Mencken had anything to say about them.

    He wrote about the row houses. In fact, he was born and lived his entire life in one. It’s now a museum like Babe Ruth’s and Edgar Allen Poe’s row houses.

    As far as I know, he didn’t write about Formstone since that only became popular in the postwar years after he had died.

  54. PaulBC says

    @59 Formstone was invented in 1937 and Mencken died in 1956, so there was some overlap. It doesn’t surprise me that he lived in a row house. They cover most of Baltimore. I lived in one too.

    I know this is an old thread and I said too much already, but this NYT article got me thinking about houses again: Saving Modernism in the Hamptons. In this case, the houses weren’t all identical, though some modernist houses were small.

    Development aimed at people with modest income doesn’t bother me, though it ultimately is done for a profit motive. Sometimes there are other goals, like Rouse’s Columbia MD (or on the flip side, to perpetuate segregation as Levitt did). Malvina Reynolds may have been right in a general sense, but she was wrong about Westlake Daly City. Her famous song is a clear case of punching down, at least insofar as it goes on to ridicule the buyers, not the developers.

    What does bother me (yes, judgment here) is when new money comes in to run roughshod over history. I realize not every building can or will be preserved, but if you presume to demolish or deface the work of a known architect (e.g. Jaffe in the Hamptons article) you should at least be able to justify it as something better. A McMansion is the same “ticky tacky” of cheap housing only super-sized (so the fast food metaphor is very apt). That really does get me angry.

    It started me wondering if we’re doing a good job protecting the Eichler houses in the SF Bay Area, and no we are not. Same idiots with more money than taste*. Maybe the value of the land tied up in old single family residences should be unlocked, since it does seem a bit ridiculous to pay over $2 million for a 1200 sq. ft. house. But doing it haphazardly doesn’t even solve the root problem. The house is bigger but does not actually house more people than the original did.

    *Note: I’m comfortable attacking people who could do something better with their money. Most people who buy tract housing are buying what they can afford.